Photographing traffic in a busy city – how to

Most of the time traffic is horrible, but you shouldn’t express this negative emotion through your photos. No one wants to admire photos that show how it’s like to be stuck in the car. People want to find out what it’s like to live in a certain city, and traffic photography can capture emotions. When taking traffic photos focus on capturing images that make your viewers picture themselves in that spot.

While some hate city traffic, you run right into it because it’s a great source of inspiration for photography. When you pass through a city, a certain emotion overwhelms you and you experience a sinking feeling of wanting to explore the city because you know you’re not coming back any time soon. Only because you’re stuck in traffic don’t curb the potential this experience can bring. Make traffic a photography subject.

If you’re new to this, the following guidelines can help you.  

Places where you can find traffic

Even if you’re stuck in the city traffic, it doesn’t mean all places are great for photography. Sometimes it’s difficult to find the right location, especially when you don’t know the place. Most traffic photographers head to congested areas, so use the Internet to find out where they’re when in a new city.

Generally, the most wonderful locations for night photography are:
-        Bus stops
-        Stop signs
-        Road corners
-        Tight uphill switch bands
-        Intersections
-        Forks in the road
-        Highway overpasses
-        Bridges from below or above

During night time, traffic movement serves as a theme for photos. When city icon spots or skyscrapers are nearby, traffic in a straight line is intriguing. But if there are no major buildings in sight, try to capture curves, movement or leading lines. Intersections and bent roads are great spots for traffic photography because you can create memorable shots from chaos.

Stay safe

You already know vehicles are dangerous, and when photographing in congested areas you’re dealing with frustrated people who are also dangerous. So, you shouldn’t stop your car in the traffic to take a good picture during the rush hour. You can get a ticket and endanger your life.

Instead of getting in the middle of the street find a vantage and shoot from a safe spot. You can access the balcony of a building near the intersection that intrigues you. You can also shoot traffic from a sidewalk because it’s safer to be around walkers than drivers. When in a busy city stay alert both whether you’re or not taking pictures.

No matter how tempting it’s to get on the road to shot the perfect photo, stay off the streets. You cannot take a picture if you’re in the emergency room or dead. Ask a friend to watch your back when you’re in a new spot because it’s helpful for someone to watch your back and make sure you don’t get involved in silly situations.

Gear you need

You’ll need a tripod both if you use your phone or a camera. For traffic photography you don’t need expensive equipment, you can also use an affordable camera. There are cameras under 200 dollars that take great, high-quality pictures. With a camera you need a full-size tripod to stabilise it over the longer exposure times. You can use a mini tripod with your phone.

Get a carbon fibre tripod because it’s lightweight and you can easily move around. If you’re passionate about traffic photography you can also get a shutter release so you can trigger the camera without touching it and introducing vibrations that can damage the photos’ quality.

How to photograph traffic trails at night

If you like how the city looks at night then you probably want to capture traffic trails at before sunrise. The good news is that these locations feature plenty of light so you can manually focus the camera.
To make sure you get the best photos, mount the camera on a tripod and secure it in a fixed position. You can use the viewfinder to focus trails but it’s easier to use the Live View screen. It allows you to zoom into the scene that interests you and fine-tune the focus.
Before capturing the photo take a test shot to see if the pictures have the desired quality. Open the image and zoom into different parts of the image to determine if it looks sharp.

How to capture a moment

The thing about traffic is that it moves most of the time. Because you want to show that vehicles are moving and aren’t parked when you take the photo learn to capture movement. It’s tricky for a beginner because vehicles look the same both when they move and stand still. If you find an amazing parking lot and you want to share it with your viewers, it’s amazing because you can easily do it. But when you want to capture motion, you need to master the slow shutter speed technique.

You probably have seen dozens or hundreds of light-trail photos you admired and hoped one day you’ll take at least one. Light-trail photos are regularly taken after sunset and they often include landscape elements like the city skyline, skyscrapers or icon buildings. To capture a light-trail image you need a camera that comes with the BULB mode feature. This feature allows you to fully control how long you keep the shutter open. Some cameras ask you to press the shutter button when you open it and when you close it, while others ask you to keep the button depressed the entire time.

You also need to use a remote release because it allows you to press the button without touching the camera. If you keep the finger on the shutter button the entire time, your photos will get wobble lines because you shake the camera.

Traffic photography is a fun way to enjoy the chaos of the streets. So next time when you visit a new city remind to get your camera with you and take some photos.


Angela Baker is a passionate photographer who is currently providing stock photos for Pixabay. She is always looking for inspiration and is convinced that the city landscape can provide plenty. That’s why she researched the best techniques to take light-trail photos to help enthusiastic photographers get the perfect shot